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DescriptionGeorge Armstrong Custer: His Personal Army-Issue Model 1865 Spencer Carbine. Collectors are always aggressive in pursuing any objects formerly belonging to Custer that come on the market, but none are more avidly sought than firearms, particularly ones of a military nature. While the Spencer carbine offered here pre-dates his Fort Abraham Lincoln period, it does date from the Indian Wars, and could quite possibly have been with him at the Battle of Washita.
It was part of the legendary collection of Dr. Lawrence A. Frost of Monroe, Michigan, who at one time had what may have been the most extensive private collection of Custer artifacts and relics ever assembled. A signed identification tag in Frost's hand which accompanies the gun identifies it as a "Spencer Carbine - Saddle Ring / Cal. 50, No. 3658, Model 1865 / 'G. Custer - 7 Cav USA' cut into wooden stock...Used by Gen. Custer in Kansas in 1867 campaign."
This carbine is pictured in Frost's 1968 book The Court- Martial of General George Armstrong Custer (p. 192a). In that book he also presents an ingenious photograph of Custer's name and inscription on the stock. The way the carving is patinated, it is very hard to read. However, Frost rubbed a white pigment into the lettering to make it stand out for photographic purposes. While it is impossible to prove that Custer carved the inscription himself, it is clear from the patina that it was carved a long time ago, and is not a fanciful modern addition, and also that the gun saw considerable use after the inscription was carved.
The Spencer is also pictured and attributed to the Frost collection in one of the leading reference books on Custer, Bugles, Banners and War Bonnets by Ernest L. Reedstrom (p.252). Reedstrom declares that "Next to his Remington and Springfield sporting arms this was his (Custer's) favorite fighting weapon." He also pictures the carved inscription on the stock as shown in Frost's own earlier book.
Dr. Frost purchased the carbine in 1955 from Howard Berry. A notarized bill of sale describes the gun in detail. In a 1973 letter (a copy of which is included in this lot), Frost refers to purchasing various Custer items from Berry, whom he describes as "a former 7th Cavalryman". Frost states that he showed them to James Calhoun Custer (a nephew of Gen. Custer and son of Nevin Custer), and that Custer assured him he remembered these items which had been shown to him by his father who stated that they were the General's. It was Frost's belief that the Spencer and other items were in a steamer trunk which disappeared many years earlier during a fire in the Custer family barn. That would clearly explain why these and other military items purchased from Howard Berry were immediately recognized by James Calhoun Custer.
Custer used a wide range of military and commercially available firearms over the course of his career, but he had a special familiarity with Spencer carbines. During the Civil War his Michigan regiments were armed with Spencers (Carbines of the U.S. Cavalry, John McAulay, p. 32). As the war ended, a new Spencer model was issued to the army with a more powerful 56-50 cartridge (Spencer Repeating Firearms, Roy Marcot, pp. 80-81). When the 7th Cavalry was formed in 1866 (Bugles, Banners and War Bonnets, Ernest Reedstrom, pp. 1-2), the Spencer Carbine became standard issue (Carbines of the U.S. Cavalry, p. 88), and was in use by them until replaced by the Sharps carbine in 1870 (Carbines of the U.S. Cavalry, p. 95). In his 1980 book, Nomad, George A. Custer in Turf, Field and Farm, Brian W. Dippie reproduces an 1867 article written by Custer in which he describes in great detail a buffalo hunting expedition. He describes learning that pistol shots "only seemed to increase (the buffalo's) speed." Accordingly, Custer wrote, "I concluded to discard the use of my revolvers and trust my Spencer carbine" (p.117). The example offered here, serial #3658, is the 1865 model and should not be confused with the Spencer rifle gifted to Custer in 1866; that gun has never surfaced (Spencer Repeating Firearms, p. 152). The presentation gun would have been the 56-44 sporting model.
Custer's regard for his Spencer carbine is evidenced in his own words in his autobiography, My Life on the Plains, where he writes: "Leaping from my bed I grasped my trusty Spencer which was always at my side" (p. 77). His Spencer shows an even patina of honest use. The metal portions are an even gray, with slight salt and peppering, and a few very minor small dents mentioned for accuracy. The wood is in good shape and has not been refinished, with several old dents and a small piece missing where the forestock meets the receiver. The carved inscription clearly shows wear and patination consistent with the rest of the stock. Original saddle ring present, part of front sight missing. The action is crisp and tight, the bore excellent. On the barrel where it meets the receiver are stamped the inspector's initials, "S.L." Copies of Bugles, Banners and War Bonnets and The Court-Martial of General George Armstrong Custer and Nomad, George A. Custer in Turf, Field and Farm are being sold as part of this lot.
Over the last few years Heritage has been privileged to present some outstanding Custer personal artifacts, but none more compelling than this Spencer carbine. We are at a loss to set a realistic estimate, so will simply offer what we feel to be a modest minimum opening bid, and allow the market to take its course.
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